Chapter One – Trust me, I’m a Venetian
The history of Venetian rowing in Australia is very brief. So brief, in fact, it only started last century in 1966. But it was started by a real Venetian who was the first person to row Venetian-style in Australia.
Antonio Scarpa was born in San Pietro in Volta, part of the long narrow island of Pellestrina which together with the island of Lido forms a barrier between the Venetian lagoon and the Adriatic Sea. Antonio Scarpa grew up on the main island of Venice and worked at the Arsenale (Venice’s historic shipyards) and on the wharfs of the Guidecca Canal in the Port of Venice as a plumber. According to his son Giovanni (John) Scarpa, even though he lived and worked in Venice, Antonio never actually owned a boat. However, Antonio’s grandfather did sail Venetian boats, some of which can also be rowed when there is not enough breeze.
After Antonio Scarpa migrated to South Australia with his wife Erminia and young son Giovanni in 1957, he worked for the South Australian Railways as a plumber. Leading up to the 1966 Adelaide Festival of Arts in March of that year, Antonio saw that the organizers of the Festival were planning to bring a genuine Venetian gondola to Adelaide to be part of the Festival. The plan was for the gondola to regularly cruise up and down the River Torrens during the Festival rowed by a gondolier while an opera singer and flamenco guitarist sang and played music to add some exotic atmosphere to the Festival’s outdoor program around Elder Park next to what is now the Adelaide Festival Centre.
One day prior to the start of the Festival, while strolling along the river, Antonio saw a gondola on the shoreline and watched in amusement as someone was struggling to ‘not’ row the boat. No-one in Adelaide at the time knew how to row a gondola. The Festival organizers obviously hadn’t appreciated the fact that it takes considerable skill to row a Venetian gondola. Gondolas hadn’t even existed in Adelaide prior to this point. Antonio managed to stop laughing long enough to step forward, introduce himself as a real Venetian and ask if he could have a go. Antonio hopped on board and showed that he could actually row the boat – after all he was from Venice. The organizers happily accepted the offer of his services and Antonio became the official gondolier for the 1966 Festival of Arts. Just like that. However, his son Giovanni can’t remember whether or not his father actually got paid for his services.
Then during the Festival itself, the Queen Mother, who was the Festival’s Patron, visited Adelaide as part of her 1966 tour of Australia and, yes you guessed it – she got to be a passenger in the gondola one day with Antonio albeit as a non-singing gondolier. Antonio’s son Giovanni was 11 at the time and remembers the occasion. (The writer’s father tells the story that he took us kids to the city to see the Queen Mother cruising on the Torrens that day but I don’t really remember it. It must have been a real crowd puller at the time though.)
In recognition for his services to the Festival that year – and for having taken the Queen Mother for a spin on the Torrens Lake and returning her safely, Antonio and his wife Erminia were invited to a Royal Garden Party for the Queen Mother at Pink Flat next to the Torrens. (See official invitation below)
After the 1966 Festival of Arts, the gondola was sold and is currently believed to be resting regally in the entrance to a fancy Italian restaurant in Collins Street, Melbourne.
Chapter Two – Just like in Venice
In 1993 a Chiropractor by the name of Dr. Tim Glover brought two brand new genuine Tramontin* Venetian gondolas to Adelaide to set up a little sideline tourist business called Adelaide Gondola offering rides to paying customers just like in Venice. The business still exists as do the gondolas. They are stored (or moored) under the restaurants on stilts next to the Torrens Weir. Antonio Scarpa taught Dr Glover how to row the boats and once took the then Lord Mayor of Adelaide, Henry Ninio and his wife Lynette out on a gondola as part of some publicity for the city. (See photo and Advertiser article below) John Scarpa being Antonio’s son was granted free access to the boats in return for Antonio’s help but never worked for Adelaide Gondola itself. (The writer did fill in a few times for the current owner Roger Carlson while on holiday from Italy in 2017 and still has the combination to the locks.)
The Adelaide Gondola business is currently for sale.
Chapter Three … is still being written
With the establishment of the Voga Alla Veneta Association of South Australia Incorporated (VAVA Inc.) in March 2020, the tradition of rowing Venetian-style will soon become available to the general public here in SA. The Association is currently raising funds to build its first boat to give anyone in Adelaide aged 8 to 80 the chance to ‘row like a Venetian’ and hopefully join the club. But it won’t be a gondola. …. If you would like to help us build this boat, you can make a tax-deductible donation here https://asf.org.au/projects/voga-alla-veneta-association-of-south-australia/ and maybe one day get to row it too.
* The Tramontin Family are the most famous gondola makers in Venice. Their ‘squero’ (boatyard) is one of only two remaining squeri (pl.) still building gondolas in Venice. https://www.tramontingondole.it/?lang=en